HC Deb 03 October 1944 vol 403 cc893-902

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Buchan-Hepburn.)

6.25 p.m.

Mr. Manningham-Buller (Daventry)

This is not the first time or the second, it is the third time, that I have ventured to raise this subject. The first time was in the Debate on War Pensions, when, no doubt owing to pressure of time, I received no answer to the point from the Parliamentary Secretary. On the second occasion I put two Questions to the Minister, and although the answers to them were not entirely satisfactory to me they did contain some slight encouragement. The third time is to-day, and I hope I shall not again be disappointed. I want to raise the question of the position of the widows of officers who before their serving husbands died were separated from them in circumstances which make it clear that the husbands were at the time of the separation, and the time of death, under a legal liability to maintain their wives. As the Minister said in answer to one of the Questions I put to him, there can be very few of those cases. That seems to be no argument for not doing something about it if a serious injustice or anomaly can be shown to exist.

The present position, as I understand it, under the existing regulations with regard to such a widow is as follows: She cannot receive a pension unless she can show that for six months preceding the death, or such other period as to the Minister may seem reasonable, her husband was contributing to her support. If she can show that, she gets a pension. She also gets a pension if she can show that she had obtained either a maintenance order or a separation order, that she is entitled to payments thereunder, that she has been receiving payment for six months preceding the death, or such other period as the Minister may stipulate, or that if she has not been receiving those payments she has been taking reasonable steps to obtain payment. It follows from the regulations that she will not get a pension unless she can show either a contribution or an order from the police court and that she is trying to enforce payment. It also follows from the regulations that if her husband left her, and she was trying to get an order through the police court at the time he died, she would not be entitled to a pension if he left her in circumstances which left him under a legal liability to maintain her. If, therefore, while she was trying to establish that liability in a court of law, he was killed, she would get no pension.

Secondly, if her husband left her and promised to make her an allowance but did not pay that allowance throughout the six months preceding death, she would get no pension. That seems to be wrong. She would get no pension even although her husband was drawing marriage allowance from the War Office. That seems to be the position. Of course, if she were the widow of a soldier of another rank that marriage allowance would be paid direct to her, and it could be argued on her behalf that she was receiving contribution from her husband. In those circumstances there could be no doubt that she would receive a pension. But in the case of an officer, where the marriage allowance is paid direct to him, the payment of marriage allowance does not have that consequence. I have never understood why the allowance is not paid direct to officers' wives. I have yet to meet an officer who would have any objection to that being done, but the consequence of not paying the allowance to the officer's wife has been in a case of which I know—and it may be in many other cases—that the wife, when she has become a widow, does not get a pension which she would have got if her husband had not taken a commission. That is quite wrong; it is quite wrong that a woman, whose husband was legally liable to maintain her, should be penalised if she has not, while her husband was serving, dragged him through the police court. If there is no contribution, under the Regulations she must show that she has a separation or a maintenance order entitling her to payment. I do not know why that stipulation is put in.

There must be many women who have sincere objections to taking their domestic troubles into a court of law, there must be many who have religious objections to doing so, and there must be many who realise that any step of that sort may destroy any chance of reconciliation with their husbands. We know of the procedure under the Army Council Instruction with regard to bringing about a re- conciliation. If the wife of an officer who leaves her without warning waits, hoping that he will come back, and does not take any step to bring the matter before a police court, and he is killed, the Minister has to say, "I cannot give her a pension because of the Regulations". That seems to me to be quite wrong. Not only has she to show that she has an order but she has to show that she is not receiving payment under it and that she is taking reasonable steps to enforce payment. That seems to me to mean that the wife of an officer serving in Burma who has obtained a separation or maintenance order ordering him to make payment will not get a pension unless she can also show that, while he was serving in Burma, she has been pressing him for payment. I submit that that, too, is quite wrong.

This matter came to my notice through an actual case which I should like to state. An officer left his wife without warning and, as I understand, without cause, in November, 1938. His wife hoped he would return. In the summer of 1939 he was interviewed by the wife's father, a gentleman whose veracity cannot be doubted. He has written me a letter in which he says the husband stated that he was fully prepared to pay his wife an allowance each year for her maintenance if he did not return to her. Would any wife after that take proceedings in a police court? Would not any wife who was fond of her husband hope, in view of those last words, that he might still return? In May, 1940, the officer was killed. He had been drawing the marriage allowance from the War Office. Application has been made for a pension on many occasions but it has always been refused because of these regulations. I submit that it is about time they were altered so as to do justice in a number of cases which, as the Minister says, must be very few. In answer to a Question last July the Minister said he was always prepared to reconsider any matter where he thought it would be to the advantage of the applicant. There has been time for reconsideration. I cannot but feel that any reconsideration, if made with an open and unprejudiced mind, would be to the advantage of this small class of persons.

If I may make a suggestion, I should have thought that the proper rule would have been that the officer's widow should be entitled to a pension where she was separated from her husband if she could establish to the satisfaction of the Minister that at the time of the death the husband was under a legal liability to maintain her and, if you like, had acknowledged that liability either by a statement admitting it to someone else or by drawing the marriage allowance. That should suffice. It may be necessary, perhaps, to impose a time limit, and to say that there must be some such acknowledgment of liability or some proof of liability within 12 months preceding the husband's death. Of one thing I feel convinced, and that is that these Regulations should not be allowed to remain in their present state. I hope that after the time that has elapsed since I raised this question the Minister will be able to announce some concession to this small class of persons.

6.37 p.m.

Captain Cobb (Preston)

In view of the fact that this matter was raised by my hon. Friend as long ago as early last July, I am surprised that my right hon. Friend has done nothing to put the matter right. He really must adopt the suggestion which my hon. Friend has made. It must, I imagine, be a matter of real distress to my right hon. Friend to think that Regulations have been so drawn that they can make such an unjust discrimination against a wife who has been left by her husband. To my mind these Regulations are, in effect, a condonation of the husband's inexcusable behaviour. I rose to endorse everything my hon. Friend said and to press my right hon. Friend to make the concessions that have been asked for.

6.38 p.m.

The Minister of Pensions (Sir Walter Womersley)

I am sure that every Member will sympathise with me in having to deal with this difficult question. The Minister of Pensions has many difficult tasks to perform and many difficult problems to try to solve. Of all those tasks I should say that the question of the separated wife has perhaps given me the most trouble. Therefore, I am glad my hon. Friend has raised this question and has given me the opportunity of explaining the position. He referred to that part of the Royal Warrant which deals with the separated wife, and it is not necessary for me to quote it because he has given a fair representation of the words. I want it to be thoroughly understood that there is no question of a pension being refused to a separated wife merely because she did not hold a court order against her husband. Where there has been genuine support a pension is awarded, even though the support may have been arranged privately between the two parties. That is to say, it is not necessary for the woman to go to court. If she has documentary evidence, such as a letter from the man saying he is prepared to support her, and then he is ordered abroad and has not a chance to put his promise into operation, I shall have to take that as a clear indication of his intentions.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

May I interrupt the Minister for one moment, although I am very reluctant to do so? There is one aspect of the case which he has not already considered. I showed him a letter from the father-in-law of the husband, which revealed quite clearly that the man had promised payment of this allowance. Then the husband went overseas.

Sir W. Womersley

I am coming to the particular case in a moment or two. I have given the closest possible care and attention to the case, but I want to deal with the general position first.

Even if some contribution has been made by the husband without any special order, I always take that into account, and say that that is a good enough ground for me on which to award a pension. Of course, where a wife holds a court order and has taken all reasonable steps within her power to get her husband to comply with it, I must award a pension. Where a wife is living apart front her husband, and if she has made really serious but fruitless efforts to obtain support from him, I deal with that case sympathetically.

I have to deal with rank and file cases as well as with officers' cases and, as my hon. and gallant Friend has stated, in the case of the rank and file the allowance is paid direct to the wife. If the man has given notice to the Pay Office that they should no longer pay over that money to the wife, we have to bear that in mind, also. I would remind the House that in many cases the man is justified in so doing, on the evidence that he has. I have to be very careful very often in try- ing to meet what appears to be a hard case because we might make a regulation that would not be justified in dealing with the whole of these cases. If a rank and file member of the Forces withdraws his allowance, that is clear evidence that he does not intend to support his wife, for some reason that he holds is good.

In the case of the officer the money is not paid direct to the wife, so we cannot take that as evidence. It is paid to the officer, If he is not manly enough to give it over to his wife, and that fact comes to the notice of the authorities, they not only stop the payment of it, but make him refund whatever he has received and has not handed over to his wife. The cases in which this happens are very rare but we feel that when any officer has received money for a special purpose, such as to support his wife and family, we must see to it that his wife and family get that money. In dealing with these cases, I have to take into, consideration the circumstances. It is true that we have to work according to Regulations, and while we can stretch those Regulations we cannot break them. I should be doing wrong if I did. It is also true that this House can amend Regulations if it thinks fit. Personally, I suggest that the Regulations are working all right and that it would be very unwise to interfere with them. They give me a certain amount of discretion in dealing with cases.

In regard to this particular case my hon. and gallant Friend knows, because we have discussed it privately, and now we are discussing it publicly, that I have tried ways and means of helping. The case is this. As my hon. and gallant Friend stated, the husband was a regular officer in the Army—a point which was not made—and it was in November, 1938, that the separation took place. I have no knowledge, and neither has my hon. and gallant Friend, of the cause of the separation, but it happened, the lady went back to her father and the husband made no contribution whatever to her support. She took no steps to get him to do so.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister again, but surely he will recollect I informed him of the wife's account of the separation, and the facts disclosed by her made it quite clear that the husband would be under legal liability to maintain her?

Sir W. Womersley

I do not remember that. I was under the impression that neither the hon. Member nor I knew the facts that brought about the separation, but I accept his correction. Here is the point I want the House to remember. It took place in November, 1938. Then in the summer of 1939 the husband was invited by his wife's father—and I have seen a letter which was sent by the wife's father to the War Office at the time when the officer was posted as missing, and therefore had not come under my Department, when he was asking for an allowance to be made to his daughter during the time the officer was posted as missing. He wrote a letter in which he said that he had interviewed the officer, and the officer had made a promise to make some provision for her. I asked my hon. Friend whether that would be accepted as evidence in court. That is not documentary evidence showing that the officer intended to contribute. If he had written a letter to his wife it would have been helpful to me. But no. In a letter that was sent to my Department by the wife she says quite definitely she had no documentary evidence, nothing except what her father had reported to her, that her husband had promised to make some provision for her. No steps were taken to implement the promise. I should have thought the father could have asked the husband to put in writing what his offer was. That would have been the sound and proper thing to do.

Captain Cobb

She had this bit of evidence, that a Government Department had recognised his liability to support his wife by giving him a wife's allowance.

Sir W. Womersley

I did not want to mention this; I did not want to drag these things into the light of day but perhaps as no name has been mentioned I can do so since that point has been raised. The fact is that the officer got this money under false pretences. He got it for his wife, and did not send it to his wife. It might be said, "Why did the War Office allow that to go on?" It was because they presumed that the officer would act honourably and hand the money over to his wife.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

The Minister has used a very harsh term about an officer. Is there any evidence to show that he was not intending to make an allowance per year, as stated in the letter to his father-in-law? Is there any evidence at all that he obtained this money by false pretences? There may be evidence that he did not pay it over during the rest of his life, but surely there is not a shred of evidence that he got the money by false pretences?

Sir W. Womersley

Really, the hon. Member cannot get away with that. This money is drawn monthly, and if it is suggested that when a man draws money monthly from the War Office, or some other Government Department, and then keeps it to the end of the year, before he sends it to his wife, that that is keeping his wife, I say it is not doing so, at any rate in the way she ought to be kept. If the officer had survived, he would have had to repay that money to the War Office because he had not done what was expected; he did not hand it to his wife after receiving it. No steps were taken to implement the promise that was made to the father. There is no documentary evidence of any kind on which I can act, and I am advised, and I have to take advice from those who have full experience of the law and the working of regulations, that the time having elapsed—the wife stated it was in 1939 when he was interviewed, and it was in 1940 that he was posted as missing and it was in 1943 when the case had to come to my notice—some attempt should have been made after the promise which the wife's father said was made to him, either to get a private arrangement whereby some contribution would be made to the wife's support, or, if that was not possible, if he still refused to do that, then legal proceedings should have been taken so that the wife should have been receiving what was her legal due.

On these facts, I am not in a position to grant a pension. This may be a hard case—there are no children: this is a young woman, but still she has lost her husband. But the principle laid down is that a woman should not be allowed to gain financially by the death of her husband. She had the opportunity during his lifetime and for another 18 months—not six months—for her to take proceedings, either through a lawyer, by a private arrangement, or through an application to court—because even an application to court would have justified me in granting a pension. I feel that the position is clear. There is no sug- gestion of a very difficult case in this matter, because I remember that she explained that there was some difficulty between them on a matter which I should not have considered really serious, but people do have quarrels sometimes over very trivial things. This is quite different from some of the matters that I have to deal with. If I break the Regulations in a case like this, where shall I be in dealing with some of the other matters in respect of which I am quite sure hon. Members will not expect me to make an award? I am sure hon. Members will know what I mean. The bulk of cases of separated wives are cases of great difficulty, in which I should not be justified in making an award. I have given the fullest possible consideration to this case. If I could have found a reasonable loophole I would have seen that the woman got the benefit of the doubt, but in this case, with the Regulations as they are—and I cannot suggest for a moment that they should be altered—I cannot stretch them to bring the case into pension.

6.53 p.m.

Mr. Petherick (Penryn and Falmouth)

Frankly, I am not quite happy about the explanation given by my right hon. Friend. It is said that hard cases make bad law and that, generally speaking, is true, because in doing justice to the few you may often do greater injustice to the many. But in this case I find it difficult to understand how if the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller) were accepted you would do injustice to anybody and you would do justice to an unknown number of widows not now getting any form of pension. In his examination my right hon. Friend has not taken into account what I believe to be one of the basic principles of English law, that the husband is under a legal obligation to maintain his wife. Although any given husband may not for a time maintain his wife as he should, it may be that, after their difficulties were overcome and they had come together again, as thousands do every year, he might then have proceeded to maintain his wife as he should. Therefore, I think that the Minister, in coming to the conclusion that he has come to, may have forgotten that he is depriving a widow, at the worst, of what would be her legal right, a legal right which is not lost because her husband has, been killed or has died. It is not right for my right hon. Friend to shelter—

It being half an hour after the conclusion of Business exempted from the provisions of the Standing Order (Sittings of the House), Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order, as modified for this Session by the Order of the House of 25th November.

Adjourned accordingly at Five Minutes before Seven o'Clock.